Les Misrables: A Grand, Romantic Alternative to Game of Thrones

There are no musical numbers in PBSs Les Misrables, but that doesnt mean this new six-part Masterpiece miniseriesproduced by the BBC, and taking Victor Hugos acclaimed 1862 novel as its direct sourcedoesnt sing a rousing (figurative) song of angry men. An exceptional adaptation of its classic material, it resounds with heart, horror and complexity, eschewing revisionist flourishes to faithfully recount its fateful 19th-century saga about mans darkest impulsesand, also, his capacity for redemption.

The price of liberty is high in Les Misrables, and so too is the cost of transformative change, both personal and political. That theme is front-and-center throughout this latest take on Hugos tale, which avoids massive alterations in favor of a straightforward and stirring approach. Precisely written by Andrew Davies, previously responsible for the BBCs Middlemarch, Vanity Fair, Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House and War and Peace (as well as the original House of Cards and Bridget Jones Diary), and competently helmed by Tom Shankland, it abridges little of crucial importance. As a result, it allows Hugos potent human dramaand sterling performances from Dominic West, David Oyelowo and Lily Collinsto carry it from wretched start to inspiring conclusion.

Premiering April 14 on PBS, after which it will be available (beginning May 20) to binge in its entirety on the Masterpiece Prime Video Channel on Amazon, Davies and Shanklands series streamlines its storys chronology, opening on a June 1815 battlefield where, with Napoleons forces in ruins, Thnardier (Adeel Akhtar) tries to rob the corpse of Colonel Pontmercy (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). When Pontmercy turns out to be alive, Thnardier pretends to be saving himthus earning from Pontmercy a life debt. Meanwhile in Paris, royalist Monsieur Gillenormand (David Bradley) curses his Bonapartist son Pontmercy to anyone who will listen, including his grandson Marius. And in the Toulon prison hulks, a convict named Jean Valjean (West) struggles to finish his 19-year sentence (for stealing a loaf of bread) under the tyrannical guard of Javert (Oyelowo)two men whose paths are destined to repeatedly cross over the course of the ensuing decades.

Men like us have only two choices: to prey on society or to guard it. You chose the former, I chose the latter, Javert tells Valjean, thereby establishing his belief that ones inherent good/evil nature is fixed at birth, as well as Les Misrables central conflict. Anyone whos read Hugos novel or seen the smash Broadway musical will know that considerable suffering awaits both, as Valjean will respond to lifes cruelty by pilfering candlesticks from a Bishop (Derek Jacobi) and, worse, a coin from young Petit-Gervais (Henry Lawfull), and Javert will fume over his inability to catch Valjean. Misery will also befall Fantine (Collins), a young seamstress whos left with child by a callous aristocratic playboy and, to support herself and her offspring, will leave her daughter Cosette in the care of the dastardly Thnardier and his wife (newly minted Best Actress Oscar winner Olivia Colman), whose hunger for moneyand fondness for cheating suckers out of itis matched only by their abusiveness.

Les Misrables doesnt mess with what works, and at six-plus hours, it has the space needed to do justice to its every incident and emotional upheaval. While a few minor elements are condensed or discarded, Davies script is true to Hugos tome in terms of basic plot particulars and rousing spirit (a cornier writer might say that the beating of its heart echoes the beating of its narrative drum, but I digress). Fantines misfortune and degradation are depicted in harrowing detail, and made all the more moving by Collins evocation of the doomed girls initial liveliness and innocence. Her agonizing deathbed scene is one of the series high points, and thankfully, the shows urgency doesnt flag after shes perished and the focus shifts to the older Cosette (Ellie Bamber) and her romance with Marius (Josh OConnor), now a law student thinking about taking part in an impending uprising against the Crown.


This Les Misrables flirts with definitiveness, conveying with passion and nuance the arduous struggles of Valjean and Javert, the former trying to prove (to himself, and society) that a man can be what he wantsfor better or worseand the latter convinced that such a notion is fantasy. Wests magnificent performance leads the way, mixing hope and faith with fear and self-doubt to brilliant effect, and hes nearly matched by Oyelowo, whose Javert is less a titanic monster than a small, dogged, heartless authoritarian consumed by a desire to win by capturing Valjean, which in turn would validate his cynical worldview. West and Oyelowo make their iconic characters not mere representations of themes but living, breathing, fallible adversaries, and they do so with such dexterous skill that its hard not to be swept up in their respective plights.

As you may have realized by now, this Les Misrables casts a person of color as Javert, and it does likewise with ponine, played by Erin Kellyman. Those moves follow in the footsteps of a few stage productions (including, notably, 2014s Broadway rendition), and they are, unsurprisingly, of no appreciable consequence, except to demonstrate that Hugos characters are defined not by their appearances but, rather, by their social marginalization and/or tormented internal conditions. If theres a shortcoming here, its Shanklands direction, which strives for, and occasionally achieves, a sense of grand scale, yet as with the climactic barricade showdown between soldiers and insurgents, sometimes feels a bit visually cramped. Thats exacerbated by his preference for close-ups, yet unlike with Tom Hoopers in-your-face 2012 musical film, those turn out to be beneficial for his stars, including a suitably nasty Colman and Akhtar as the Thnardiers.

Youll be forgiven for involuntarily humming some of the musicals most famous tunes during Les Misrables key moments. Still, Davies and Shanklands versionscored, mournfully, by John Murphystands on its own as a rich, intricate portrait of regret, guilt, rebellion and salvation. It exists in the gritty, grimy muck of the real world, where kindness and mercy are in short supply (especially for women), and brutish nastiness is the order of the day. Moreover, its loyal to the dense profundity of Hugos work, whose understanding of revolutionary individual and social movements (inspired by God and man alike) proves to be as timely and poignant as ever.

Read more: https://www.thedailybeast.com/pbs-les-miserables-a-grand-romantic-alternative-to-game-of-thrones

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